Guess Who’s Coming To School

By Jonathan Weisman — November 01, 2000 15 min read
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Depth charge blasts from the submarine movie U-571 were still echoing in Brian Templin’s ears when the phone rang at his home around 10 o’clock one Sunday night last spring. Templin, principal of Holt Senior High School outside Lansing, Michigan, had been getting calls all weekend, but his kids had garbled the messages. “Some guys are trying to sell you something,” they had told their dad. Now, a stranger was on the other end of the line, someone working for Al Gore’s campaign: “How would you like a visit from the vice president?”

“I said, ‘You bet,’ ” Templin recalled. “I didn’t even hesitate.”

With that, the principal all but surrendered his school to an invading army. At 7 the next morning, the vanguard of Gore’s advance team arrived at the low-slung, tan-and-brick building. Secret Service agents followed in the afternoon and were soon clambering underneath the school, exploring the tunnel complex that houses its pipes. Campaign staff, meanwhile, set up shop in the school’s main office and spent the week choreographing every moment of the vice president’s seven-hour visit: Which classes should Gore visit? Which should he teach? Which students should join him for lunch? The vice president wanted to bed down the night before in a teacher’s house. Who would host him?

By Thursday, the eve of the vice president’s May 5 visit, anticipation was giving way to anxiety. A few students had been caught plotting trouble for Gore, and Holt’s teachers were grumbling about rude campaign staffers. Yet Templin, bunkered in his office, looked unflappable, his neatly trimmed goatee, graying temples, and Motorola flip phone giving him an air of insouciance befitting an ambitious business consultant more than a suburban principal. This was going to be a historic event for the school, he believed, a chance for the kids to get a taste of politics and for Holt to step into the national spotlight. The irony of a politician turning a school upside down to promote his education proposals didn’t trouble Templin.

As anyone who watches the evening news knows, the public school has been the backdrop of choice for this year’s presidential campaign. Almost nightly, it seems, we’re treated to images of George W. Bush perched awkwardly in a tiny plastic chair, chatting up a kindergartner, or Al Gore striding down a high school hallway with teens trailing in his wake. History counts more than a few candidates who have vowed to be an “education president,” but it’s hard to recall another election where schools have been such ubiquitous props in the theater that is modern politics.

In some ways, Holt was an odd choice for a Gore stopover. Its test scores are good, but not great. It boasts little diversity; students are almost exclusively one shade of white. The oldest part of the building dates to 1958, but the newest section was completed just seven years ago, making Holt an unlikely setting for a discussion about the need for federal school-construction funds, a pet issue of Democrats.

But part of Gore’s May 5 schedule included a Lansing speech before the Michigan Education Association in which he would unveil a proposal to sink $16 billion into teacher recruitment and pay raises. A visit to Holt, union officials told the Gore camp, would make a nice segue to the announcement; the school has an innovative teacher training program with Michigan State University, and the esprit de corps among its faculty is unusually good. Working together, Holt teachers have replaced some final exams with multidisciplinary student presentations, occasionally bringing in outsiders—professors, business executives, parents, and government officials—to evaluate kids’ work. The school’s teachers also meet every Wednesday morning to brainstorm about new instructional approaches. Thanks to these so-called “R&D” sessions, math and science teachers have developed three-dimensional computer programs to teach geometry and even design a better soccer ball.

Ultimately, though, what made Holt a perfect campaign stop for Gore is the school’s demographics. Though Templin is quick to note that the socioeconomic backgrounds of his 1,100 students range widely, the vast Holt parking lot tells a different story: It’s full, but there are few jalopies and no sweet-16 BMWs from daddy. These are wheels that scream middle class. Surrounding the school are quiet, wide streets lined with tidy, relatively new split-levels and ramblers—a suburb of a suburb really. Neighborhoods like it throughout the Midwest are ground zero for Election 2000. In short, Holt’s families are swing voters in a swing state in a swing region that will determine who wins the White House in November.

Texas Governor George W. Bush, Gore’s Republican rival, has dropped in on more than 100 schools from Newark, New Jersey, to Mission Viejo, California. He’s used these events to tout improvements in Texas schools, to charge Bill Clinton with presiding over an “education recession,” and to showcase his agenda. Bush’s proposals are far-reaching and include a $5 billion reading initiative as well as expanded training for teachers. The heart of his education plan is a proposal to require states to create standardized tests at nearly every grade level, with an explicit threat to failing schools: Improve student performance, or your federal funding for disadvantaged kids will be converted to private school vouchers.

This idea has met with mixed reviews in schools. One day in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bush was greeted with tough questions about federal education aid and harsh words for his voucher proposal. When Bush told Central High School principal Rudolph Howard that educators shouldn’t fear competition from voucher-funded private schools, Howard snapped: “It’s not fear. We want a level playing field. We want building and technology to be jump-started to the extent we can be competitive.” The school’s student council president, Derrick Williams, chimed in skeptically, “Having school districts and school industries fight over children as if they were commodities is kind of appalling.”

But Bush and his sometimes rough-edged running mate, Dick Cheney, have stuck to a rigorous schedule of school visits, hoping that images of the two huddled with cute kids and reading The Hungry Little Caterpillar—Bush’s favorite children’s book— will hammer home the message that they are kinder, gentler Republicans.

Gore has avoided rhetorical muggings during his school visits, in part because his agenda has been vetted through the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. His 10-year budget plan includes $115 billion in education spending to pay for school construction and renovation, new teacher recruitment and training programs, expanded preschool, and accountability and testing ideas that are somewhat less punitive than Bush’s.

But the vice president’s warm reception at schools also stems from the way he pulls off these education extravaganzas. Gore has visited far fewer classrooms than Bush, but he’s transformed the traditional drop-by photo op into an all-day affair. Teachers, administrators, and students seem genuinely surprised and impressed at this commitment of time. For public consumption at Holt, there would be Gore co-teaching a history lesson on desegregation, talking physics with a gaggle of inquisitive students, lunching on pizza and French fries with the student body elite, chatting with custodians, and answering questions from parents and teachers.

In some ways, this is an odd use of a candidate’s time. Spending hours at a school rather than a few minutes generally doesn’t earn Gore more time on TV. And print journalists loathe the marathon visits because they produce few policy announcements and even fewer political scraps—in short, no real news. But the vice president insists that his visits to education’s front lines are invaluable. “Gore is at his best when he’s interacting with real people,” says Bob Shrum, the candidate’s media adviser. “Over time, the images will sink in.”

He adds, a little defensively, “Absolutely no one is resistant to this.”

No one on the campaign, that is. At Holt, as the week of preparation wore on, the staff and students showed signs of rebellion. One student who threatened to mount a pro-Bush demonstration was suspended—no questions asked. When another talked of coming to school with an armload of “Bush for President” signs, Dan Plunkett, the school’s assistant principal for discipline, firmly advised against it. “There was nothing to it as far as [the Secret Service] was concerned,” huffed Plunkett, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran. “There was something to it as far as I was concerned.”

Throughout the week, Gore campaign staffers did their best to fit in at the school. Josh Stinn, a member of the advance team, spoke to a media class and regaled them with stories about the jaded national press corps. But some of Gore’s team forgot they were visitors in the Midwest, which puts a premium on politeness. “They would just walk into your classroom,” media teacher Pamela Bebber said incredulously. “You’re trying to have fun with them, to make the best of it, and they weren’t having it. They have no sense of humor.”

Templin, for one, didn’t forget that Holt is his school. Late in the week, he invited students from next-door Sycamore Elementary to join the high schoolers in the football stands for a Gore speech—an invitation Secret Service agents didn’t learn about until the vice president was already on-site. “They were not happy,” Templin recalled. “They said, ‘You cannot just make these decisions.’ ”

Templin’s response: “OK, I’ll call the principal and tell her she will have to tell the teachers and students of Sycamore Elementary School that they cannot go.” In a triumph of public relations over security, the kids came for the speech.

After school let out Thursday afternoon, Holt’s staff gathered in the library for one last briefing before Gore’s arrival the next morning. Dean Manikas, the assistant principal for instruction, doled out still-warm, pink laminated School Staff badges from a cardboard box and announced that no one would get in the building without one. Teachers, meanwhile, sprawled on stuffed chairs or slouched at tables as they fingered their badges, shuffled through papers, and chatted somewhat anxiously. The week had left them exhausted and jittery, and there was still a host of unanswered questions. If Gore did not stop by her class, one teacher demanded, would she get a chance to meet him? Another asked, Would the media be allowed to harass the students? Just look how they overran Columbine High School, she said. Holt students did not need that kind of attention.

One instructor testily suggested that if teachers didn’t want the fuss to interfere with their classes, they should post signs that read “Testing” or, better still, “Bush Contributor.”

“People, people,” Templin finally said. “This is my first time around, too. This is a wonderful opportunity to be with one of the most powerful people in the world. But it’s not going to be perfect.” With a therapist’s calm, school counselor Amy Hart chimed in, “I know this is obviously very squirrelly and very tense and nerve-wracking, but it’s really cool as well, so please keep that in perspective.”

One person was conspicuously absent. Margo Strong, a business and computer science teacher, was away from school attending to pressing concerns. That Monday, Templin had interrupted her class and summoned her to his office. Her mind had raced as she walked down the hallway: Maybe some of her students had violated the school’s rules on computer use, she thought. “I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong—put it that way,” she recalled.

Templin was blunt when Strong arrived in his office. “How’d you like to play host to Al Gore?” he asked flatly.

“Get out of here,” she replied.

Strong was a logical choice. She was a 22-year veteran of Holt, and her husband, Jay, taught next door at Sycamore. Plus, the couple had two children, ages 6 and 10, enrolled in the public schools. Strong agreed to host the VP, and within hours, a Secret Service agent and local police officers were snooping through her house. Strangers who looked like extras from the movie Men in Black stood guard on the front lawn, prompting a neighbor to phone and make sure the family was all right. A few days later, a telephone crew arrived and wired the house with a dedicated line for Gore. At first, the vice president’s visit was kept under wraps, but on Thursday, the Secret Service let the neighborhood in on the secret so no one would call the police and report the many agents prowling around the home, yard, and surrounding streets. When Gore arrived after midnight, a hundred or so people were waiting across the street. “Mind if I talk to the neighbors?” Gore asked his hosts. “Anybody that would stay up till 12:30, I want to meet.”

He then settled into an easy chair in the Strongs’ living room with a bottle of water as Margo served up the “munchy stuff"—some crackers, sausage, and a local cheese spread she is rather fond of. “We were nervous. I mean, what do you say to the vice president of the United States?” she chuckled. “But really, he put us right at ease. He was very, very down to earth.”

Ostensibly, this visit was to be Gore’s chance to listen to the concerns of a pair of teachers working on education’s front lines. And the three did talk schools for a while. But the vice president got caught up in a hockey game on TV. The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins were battling through what would become a five-overtime marathon playoff, and Gore watched until the last period. Finally, at 2 a.m., he retired to the double bed of the Strongs’ 6-year-old in a room festooned with bunnies and Britney Spears posters.

Three hours later, Margo Strong was awake again, preparing the breakfast that Gore aides had suggested was his favorite: an omelet with green pepper, onions, and cheese, along with bacon and fruit. “A staffer had said cold cereal would be fine,” Strong remembered, “but I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not serving that to the vice president.’ ”

Before dawn, Gore jumped into a polo shirt, a pair of pleated Dockers, and black shiny cowboy boots. At 6, he strolled into the kitchen, gobbled down the breakfast with the Strongs, and boarded the motorcade for the quick trip to Holt. By then, the high school looked like an armed camp with clusters of men in gray fatigues, suited agents with wires snaking from their ears, German shepherds with noses to the ground, and local sheriff’s deputies in brown polyester uniforms. “Welcome VP Gore—Carpe Diem,” proclaimed the Holt High marquis.

“There is a lot of anxiety around the school right now,” math teacher Beth Berwald admitted as she pushed through a phalanx of camera crews to get to one of two school entrances open for the day. “All in all, the kids have tried to keep it under control, but it’s been difficult.”

Upon his arrival, Gore turned to the media throng and quipped, “Short nights, don’t you think?” Just before 8, after meeting privately with school administrators, Gore looked in briefly on a geometry class. But he was already 20 minutes behind schedule, so he moved on to a physics class with three television cameras, three photographers, and a boom microphone in tow. Two students were playing the clarinet and saxophone as the class watched the sound waves dance on teacher Eric Pulver’s oscilloscope.

“What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned about?” Gore asked them.

“Mr. Pulver’s personal life,” Tonia Van Every, an 18-year-old senior, piped up. Pulver, as it turned out, was marrying another teacher in the school.

At 9 o’clock came the day’s first big event: Gore teaching a 10th grade government class about desegregation. The topic gave the candidate a chance to show off. He told stories about the civil rights battles of his father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., and he spoke of growing up in Tennessee and watching movies at the segregated Princess Theater in his hometown of Carthage.

“It’s been exhilarating,” said Kate Brennan, the class’ teacher, as she watched Gore. “The whole idea of having the vice president of the United States in my little classroom was almost surreal till now.”

Indeed, things were going a little too well. As the candidate led the students through the ins and outs of Brown vs. Board of Education and Plessy vs. Ferguson, they seemed remarkably knowledgeable. “How do you know all this?” Gore asked. One teen confessed: They had been prepped. “We’ve done this before,” he told Gore.

After the lesson, it was on to an interview with the staff of the Holt High School Ramparts newspaper, then a meeting with the cafeteria staff, bus drivers, attendance officers, counselors, and janitors. For lunch, Gore ate with a half-dozen students selected by the administration, joining them at a picnic table in the school’s grassy courtyard. In the cafeteria’s serving line, the vice president had stood next to a student sporting a T-shirt that read, “Al’s my pal” on the front and “Being vice is nice” on the back. No great culinary role model, Gore chose the pepperoni pizza and french fries.

In the afternoon, he talked informally with about 30 students and parents in the library. One teenager questioned the increasing reliance on test scores to measure student performance and hold schools accountable for improvement. A few others objected to the vice president’s support for mandatory community service in high school. “Would you have done community service if it was not required?” Gore asked, and the students grudgingly admitted they probably would not have.

It all went smoothly. The closest thing to a confrontation was a solitary Bush sign in the cafeteria. Gore even defused a potential metaphysical clash in a science class. When senior Stephen Baker told the vice president that he believed in the Bible’s creation story, not the big-bang theory, Gore responded that the two ideas weren’t inconsistent. “I believe you can be a person of faith and still believe in scientific processes,” he told the 17-year-old.

“I guess I hadn’t thought of that,” Stephen responded. As Gore headed off to English class, the student shrugged and said, “He’s a pretty nice guy.”

In the end, Templin insisted the visit was a success. The press paid scant attention to Holt’s teacher innovations, but he did get a call from a Memphis high school principal about the Wednesday morning faculty collaborations. And for two weeks after the Gore team decamped, students collected mountains of press clippings about the candidates’ positions on education and other issues. A student body never known for political activism was suddenly excited about an election. “If any of our students were impacted, if it heightened their interests in politics and their awareness of issues, you bet it was worth it,” Templin says.


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